A lending hand, a listening ear


Kimberley Steven used to wake up and think of the normal morning stuff: that first cup of coffee, the morning commute and work meetings. These days she wakes up and thinks of how cold it is and how the clients of her City of Ottawa respite centres made it through the night.

A woman with long brown hair wearing a black shirt poses for a photo outdoors

Kimberley Steven is the Operations Lead for the respite centres.

“It’s been life-changing,” says Ms. Steven, of her move to front-line COVID-19 work in 2020. “I don’t think of it as going to work anymore. I think of it as going to help people.”

Ms. Steven worked in recreation programs for the City. Then came the pandemic.

With restrictions and uncertainty increasing, the fate of Ottawa’s vulnerable population, such as the homeless, became an urgent concern. In March, Mayor Watson announced a Human Needs Task Force and City staff started to look at where the City could quickly provide a safe daytime refuge for those needing services that were now limited, or not available due to the pandemic.

McNabb Recreation Centre, on Percy Street, became a temporary respite centre location in April, staffed by recreation staff and staff from the Somerset West and Centretown community health centres. The team opened the centre in three days. And so began their COVID-19 journey to support people experiencing homelessness and those in precarious housing situations.

The goal was to make people feel welcome, respected, safe. The respite centre was a place to get in from the weather, go to a washroom, take a shower and get some food. It was also a place to connect with other community services, such as health-care centres and housing providers.

McNabb was a temporary location, replaced by a centre at Tom Brown Arena on Bayview Station Road. As part of the City’s preparation for winter, there are two other centres now established, the Bernard Grandmaître respite centre, on McArthur Road, and St. Paul’s Eastern United Church respite centre, on Cumberland Street.

Some neighbours of these centres had initial concerns about safety, garbage and noise. But at the Tom Brown centre initial apprehension has turned into a story of community support, with people making donations and calling the centre for information.

Megan Dowe also worked in recreation before the pandemic. She started with the City in 2013 running skateboard summer camps, then became a booking clerk at McNabb Recreation Centre. She was part of the team that turned McNabb into a temporary respite centre, then moved to the centre at Tom Brown. Now, at age 25, she’s the site lead at the St. Paul’s centre on Cumberland Street.

It’s a busy place. Your visit starts with a screening at the door, with questions asked about possible exposure to COVID-19, any symptoms and recent travel. There’s a check-in table, then you can use the washroom, get a coffee and sandwich, use the Wi-fi and relax.

The large basement hall has tables and chairs well spaced out. A staff member is constantly cleaning and a security guard ensures things are orderly. Sometimes, people come in with foot injuries, frostbite or an addiction problem. First-aid is administered, or the person is referred to a community health centre or hospital for the more serious issues.

The essential part is building trust through one-on-one interactions. The magic of building relationships, maybe just sharing a smile or handing over a sandwich. “A lending hand, a listening ear,” says Ms. Dowe.

Sometimes a small step can have a big impact. One staff person at the McNabb respite centre, Raymonde Moreau, called in some hair stylists to help a man with his unkempt hair and beard. Two weeks later, with a good hair and beard cut, he looked like a new man, and had a job and a place to live.

At the St. Paul’s centre, Ms. Dowe chats quietly outside the church with a couple of her clients. The centre has only been open a few weeks but it’s busier every day. She is working to build relationships with the residents and business owners who are nearby. The goal is that everyone feels safe and respected in the neighbourhood.

And every day, the toughest part of her job is closing the centre at 4 pm and diplomatically but firmly telling people they must leave. She has a place to go home. Many of the clients do not.

“It breaks my heart,” she says.

Transcript for 'An Interview with Megan Dowe – St. Paul’s Respite Centre' video

The City is happy to receive donations for clients at the various Winter Respite Centres. The following items are needed:

  • New thick heavy socks
  • New men’s and women’s underwear and thermal underwear (sizes medium and large)
  • New or gently used winter accessories; hats, gloves, scarves, boots and coats
  • Blankets
  • Back packs
  • Fabric mask donations are also always welcome.

To donate, email Tombrownrespite@ottawa.ca to set up an appointment for drop-off. Remember to follow physical distancing when dropping off donations. Thank you in advance for your generosity.